Friday, December 23, 2016

History - Or Politics?

Activists in front of City Hall, Portland, Oregon

Portland (OR) had the chance to make history this week.  The City Council of what is widely recognized as one of the most progressive cities in the United States could have made a statement that said it was putting its investments in line with its values, that it was going to put companies that were acknowledged as the “worst of the worst” on a “Do Not Buy” list.

The stage was set.  Two years ago, the City Council compiled a list of criteria for “socially responsible” investing, and set up a Socially Responsible Investment Committee (SRIC) to review the city’s investments and make recommendations as to businesses that should be included on the “Do Not Buy List.”   The criteria included companies for which there were:
  • Environmental concerns
  • Health concerns including weapons production
  • Concerns about abusive labor practices
  • Concerns about corrupt corporate ethics and governance
  • Concerns about extreme tax avoidance
  • Concerns about exercise of such a level of market dominance so as to disrupt normal competitive market forces
  • Concerns about impacts on human rights
Even before the SRIC held its first meeting, the city’s Human Rights Commission (HRC) was approached by a group of human rights “activists” and asked to endorse a request that the SRIC include Caterpillar on its “Do Not Buy” list, based upon its human rights violations in Palestine, among other things.  Initially, the HRC voted unanimously to make this endorsement; after “push back” from the Jewish Federation and other “anti-BDS” activists, a second meeting was devoted to this endorsement with the result that two HRC members backed away from their initial positive votes, while the majority held firm.
Caterpillar violates 6 of 7 Socially Responsible Criteria
The issue then went to the SRIC, which took testimony on Caterpillar and other “bad actors” brought to its attention, including Wells Fargo Bank for its support of the private prison industry and other violations of the city’s criteria.  Again, there was lengthy testimony and heated debate – especially about the inclusion of Caterpillar – but ultimately the SRIC found that Caterpillar violated six of the seven criteria listed above, and put it on the list of “do not buy” companies.  Wells Fargo was also on this list, which then went to the City Council for approval about a month ago.

The City Council then held a lengthy hearing, during which activists on all sides repeated much of the testimony that the HRC and the SRIC had already heard.  Additional testimony was given concerning Caterpillar’s participation in the Standing Rock pipeline, which had become a major issue in the intervening months, and its proposed use to build Donald Trump’s intended “wall with Mexico.”  After taking more than four hours of testimony, one Commissioner decided that the SRIC had not done what he expected them to do (which was to single out two or three companies that were “the worst of the worse"!), so he prepared a resolution that would discount the work of the HRC and SRIC and put the three companies that HE thought were the “worst” (which did not include Caterpillar or Wells Fargo) on the “do not buy” list.

Inside Council Chambers, Portland (OR) City Hall
The vote was scheduled to take place last week, but an unusual (for Portland!) snow storm precluded a quorum of City Commissioners attending that meeting, so the vote was re-scheduled for December 21.  And on that day, the above-mentioned Commissioner – who was (defeated in his bid for re-election and) attending his last meeting before leaving office, did an “about face” and announced his support for the inclusion of Caterpillar and Wells Fargo on the “do not buy” list.  This courageous move (albeit one with few political consequences) was immediately superseded by a so-called “friendly amendment” by another Commissioner to suspend city purchases of ANY corporate bonds for a four-month period, in order to give the city (including the newly-elected Mayor and Commissioner, who would take office in January) a chance to “study” the bigger issue of city investments.

In other words, in my eyes (and those of other activists), the city declined to make a statement about corporate responsibility and socially responsible investing, and merely “kicked the can” down the road to be dealt with later.  It was a solution that pleased everyone by pleasing no-one – very political (and very “un-Portland like” in my humble view!).  And it means that Portland lost its opportunity to take its place in history – to take a stand for justice through its investments at a time when such a sign was urgently needed.

Friday, December 9, 2016

Goodbye to Bethlehem

Brenda and Rev. Alex Awad

Rev. Alex Awad became a refugee when his family was evicted from the Jerusalem home that had been theirs for generations in the 1948 “Nakba.”  He lost his Palestinian citizenship in 1967, when the Israeli government denied Palestinians who were not “home” at the time of the 6 Day War the right to return to their native country.  Awad was studying in Europe at that time. Unable to return home, he enrolled at a college in Tennessee where he met his wife Brenda.

Eventually, the Awads became missionaries with the United Methodist General Board of Global Ministries, and were able to return to Palestine in that capacity, with Alex working as the Dean of Students at Bethlehem Bible College and Brenda working alongside him as development liaison officer for the college.  Alex also served as pastor of the Jerusalem Baptist Church, and both Awads worked with other Methodist missionaries and the indigenous Christian population in the Holy Land .  Upon the Awad’s retirement in 2015, they left Bethlehem and moved to Eugene, Oregon, to be close to children and grandchildren.

Rev. Awad’s story – of loss and pain and renewal – is not by any means unique in the narrative of that bit of land that three faiths call “Holy.”  Throughout his life, he has written and spoken of his story – the story of the Palestinian people.  He is the author of Palestinian Memories; the Story of a Palestinian Mother and Her People and Through the Eyes of the Victims.  Both books discuss the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from the perspective of a Palestinian Christian. Rev. Awad is also the author of numerous articles on the conflict and on Christians in the Holy Land, theology of the Land, Christian Zionism and interfaith dialogue.  He is an internationally known speaker on these subjects.

I first met Alex and Brenda when I visited Bethlehem with a delegation from the United Methodist Church in 2008.  A CD of Christmas music from the Bethlehem Bible College that I bought on that trip is part of my holiday music repertoire.  And, while I am delighted to have the Awads as “neighbors” in the Pacific Northwest, I share their sadness at having to leave Bethlehem.

This time of year, when friends in the Holy Land post photos of the Christmas tree lighting in Nativity Square, or when I listen to “Silent Night” sung in Arabic, I return to Bethlehem in my dreams.  And I pray that the Holy Land will remain truly “Holy” for all – no matter their faith.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

A Tale of Two Villages

On a recent stay in England I had the opportunity to visit the “ghost village” of Tyneham, a village that was “de-populated” during World War II – and the comparisons to the Palestinian villages that were “de-populated” during the Nakba were so strong that I was compelled to share them.

The shell of a home in Tyneham

Before the War, Tyneham was a small farming village of about 225 people, living in 102 homes – mostly tiny stone cottages – and working on the surrounding farmland.  It was in the heart of Dorset, on the southern coast of England, what the British call “Thomas Hardy country.”  But, as the Nakba changed things for the Palestinian people in 1948, World War II changed things for the residents of Tyneham in 1943.

In November of that year, the villagers were sent letters from the War Cabinet telling them that they had to leave their homes by December 19 in order to give troops the space they needed for training.  Of course, the patriotic villagers complied without complaint – England was a very patriotic place in the 1940s! – and left with the understanding that they would be allowed to return when the Army no longer needed their village.

and the shells of homes in Bir'im

If this story is starting to sound familiar, then maybe you’ve visited Bir’im, the Palestinian village in the northern Galilee that was the home of Archbishop Elias Chacour prior to 1948 – or one of the other hundreds of villages that were similarly destroyed during the Nakba?  The main difference is that the residents of Tyneham at least were given a few weeks’ notice to vacate their homes – the 542 residents of Bir’im had to flee with the clothes on their backs and whatever household goods they could hastily grab.

But residents of both villages were told they could come back – to Bir’im in a few weeks, to Tyneham after the war had ended.  Today – 70 years later – both villages are shells with crumbling stone walls, both have been turned into “parks” (of a sort!) and both have standing churches with cemeteries that are used to this day.  For, while the living cannot return to their homes, the dead may return for burial in both Bir’im and Tyneham.

Bir'im church

Tyneham church
Of course, the intervening years have treated these two villages very differently.  The buildings in Bir’im were still standing in 1951 when the residents petitioned the courts to return to their land.  When the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that they could return, the Army went in and blew up the houses, leaving only the rubble that is visible today.  Further, the Israeli government subsequently discovered that the village housed the remains of a 7th century synagogue, and thus turned the area into a national park, eradicating signs that a vibrant community of Christians and Muslims once lived, loved, worked, played and prayed there.

The dead return to Tyneham
Tyneham suffered a slightly different fate.  When its residents asked to return, in 1947, they were told that the Ministry of Defense was claiming permanent occupancy to facilitate the operation of a large military base, Lulworth.   The residents were given some compensation, and the village was turned into a shooting range, even as residents and sympathetic helpers attempted to re-gain access.  Finally, after continued discussions, in the mid-1970s the Army agreed to shore up the derelict buildings and to allow public access on weekends when the gunnery school was closed.  Today, one can visit the shells of the buildings and learn about the life of the village from the plaques on the walls, or visit the cemetery and church which, while decommissioned, is intact. 

and the dead return to Bir'im

Two villages – two people.  Separated by a continent, language and customs, yet bound together by war and its aftermath.  While in England, I noticed that many of the towns have signs, “Twinned with ____________,” referring to their “sister city” in another country.  Perhaps Tyneham and Bir’im should be “twinned”?